I suppose there are fathers and sons who bond early and stay close for the duration – through the son's adolescence and adulthood, the father's growing old. But you sure don't see those stories on screen, or in the pages of a book.
And “When Did You Last See Your Father?” is not one of those stories. A small, beautifully acted piece adapted from the British poet Blake Morrison's memoir, the film stars the great Jim Broadbent as Arthur Morrison, a doctor married to a doctor (Juliet Stevenson), living in the English countryside and subjecting everyone – wife, children, housemaid, total strangers – to his antsy, jocular, overbearing, scamming self.
Colin Firth, quietly brooding and thoroughly convincing, is the adult son – a man who has loved and loathed his father from childhood. Blake, who lives in London with his wife (Gina McKee) and two young children, has never quite forgiven Arthur for stomping all over his psyche, for (most probably) cheating on his mother, for embarrassments and traumas, big and small. They're not exactly estranged, Arthur and Blake, but Blake keeps his distance.
Until his father is diagnosed with cancer, that is, and the inevitable coming together of the family – the hospital visits, discussions about financial affairs, the late-night vigils – ensues.
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Directed by Anand Tucker, who brings the same knack for restrained but observant storytelling that marked both his Shopgirl and Hilary and Jackie, the film is a memory piece, with Firth's character flashing back to his childhood and teendom, to pivotal moments, or trivial moments that somehow still loom large. The very good Matthew Beard plays Blake as a skinny, scowling teen, Bradley Johnson as the young boy.
“When Did You Last See Your Father?” is very, very English. Blake's adolescence happened in the 1960s, when the Cuban missile crisis threatened to become a nuclear nightmare, and the British Invasion was just launching its mop-topped musical attack on the world. But the rolling green hills and valleys, the staid villages and out-of-the-way pubs of Arthur and Blake's England seem from a distant, different time.
And Arthur hangs steadfastly onto that time through the decades, and through his son's rise to some stature in the literary world. Still, the father wants to know why the son didn't go into a “real” line of work, like medicine.
And it's that kind of casual and constant criticism that Blake finds himself dealing with, even after his father has gone.